April 29, 2016 | Issue Brief on International Conflicts
It is widely believed that in 1997, NATO promised Russia that it would not establish permanent military bases in any former Warsaw Pact countries that might someday become NATO members. This is in fact a myth that has been perpetuated by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, as well as by the lack of diligent research and basic knowledge among commentators, politicians, and policymakers in the West. The U.S. should publicly clarify its position on this matter and then take the appropriate steps to ensure that Central and Eastern Europe are properly defended.
There is a common misconception that the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation (NATO–Russia Founding Act) prohibits the permanent basing of NATO soldiers in Central and Eastern European countries. Regarding the question of permanent bases, the act states:
NATO reiterates that in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces. Accordingly, it will have to rely on adequate infrastructure commensurate with the above tasks. In this context, reinforcement may take place, when necessary, in the event of defence against a threat of aggression and missions in support of peace consistent with the United Nations Charter and the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] governing principles, as well as for exercises consistent with the adapted CFE [Conventional Armed Forces in Europe] Treaty, the provisions of the Vienna Document 1994 and mutually agreed transparency measures. Russia will exercise similar restraint in its conventional force deployments in Europe.
When reading the phrase “in the current and foreseeable security environment,” it is important to remember that Russia and NATO agreed to this act 19 years ago. Moscow’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic security has changed since the days of goodwill in 1997, and Vladimir Putin has chosen a path for Russia that is different from the one chosen by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. For example:
Judging by Russia’s track record since the NATO–Russia Founding Act, the “current and foreseeable security environment” in Europe has changed dramatically since 1997. This alone justifies permanently basing NATO troops in Central and Eastern Europe.
The best way to guarantee the security of the NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe against a conventional Russian military threat is to have a robust troop presence and military capabilities in the region. This is especially true for the three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—which are too small to rely on a strategy of defensive depth that could buy NATO enough time to mobilize and deploy a sizable force to the region. The U.S. should therefore:
One of the best ways to keep Central and Eastern Europe secure and free is for NATO to return to the basics of being first and foremost a defensive alliance. NATO does not need to be everywhere in the world doing everything all the time, but it does need to be capable of defending its members’ territorial integrity. As long as Russia does not plan to attack a NATO member, Moscow should have nothing to fear from military bases in Central and Eastern Europe.—Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation. Daniel Kochis is a Research Associate in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Davis Institute.
 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security Between NATO and the Russian Federation, May 27, 1997, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_25468.htm (accessed April 27, 2016); emphasis added.
 Julian Isherwood, “Russia Warns Denmark Its Warships Could Become Nuclear Targets,” The Telegraph, March 21, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/denmark/11487509/Russia-warns-Denmark-its-warships-could-become-nuclear-targets.html (accessed April 27, 2016).